Should the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board put the construction of a new, consolidated high school up for a vote via referendum?
In a democracy where taxpayers will get stuck with the bill — anywhere from $80 to $150 million, by the board’s own votes and estimates — the short answer seems obvious: Well, duh, of course.
And to be clear in a state where the legal nature of referenda is opaque, the board has full legal authority to put a binding referendum on the ballot. As a story in Thursday’s paper noted, there are legal reasons to avoid a non-binding “advisory” referendum, but Act 34 of 1973 explicitly grants the board the legal right to put the construction project on the ballot for a binding vote. In fact, the law requires either a referendum or a public hearing.
So what arguments can be made in opposition to a referendum?
The foremost: Time. This is not a last-minute decision by the board, this is a project nearly two decades in the making. As far back as July 2001, then-Superintendent Jeff Namey warned the district had to cut back on spending, and floated the idea of closing one of the three high schools.
Since then the board studied the problem repeatedly, but did nothing until this consolidation was approved. In fact, even this plan has been in the works for years. The initial vote to merge grades nine through 12 from Coughlin and Meyers high schools was made in June 2015.
Which means the issue was already put to voters, last year. Given the chance to reshape the board, the public re-elected three of the most steadfast supporters of consolidation, and elected only one consolidation opponent. This was the best opportunity for the opposition: Run a slate of candidates and put the issue squarely on the ballot. That didn’t happen.
Then there is the problem of Coughlin students already being split into two buildings since January 2016. Yes, it’s a problem of the board’s own making, thanks to original plans to raze Coughlin and build anew on the same site. The board should have secured a needed zoning variance before splitting the students and gutting part of Coughlin. But the reality is here. Does a referendum prolong the situation, and is that something the students should have to endure?
Coughlin senior Kallie O’Donnell put it succinctly at a recent board meeting: “Get us a school.”
Lastly, if a referendum is held and voters reject the project,what’s the next step? If voters support the project, do opponents concede the issue?
In short, the arguments against a referendum have some strength, missteps by the board notwithstanding. So here’s a possible compromise.
There is a petition being circulated by the Save Our Schools organization to get the board to put the question up for a vote. If that petition gets a sizable response — we’re talking thousands, not hundreds — quickly enough for the board to still be able to put a question on the November ballot, the board should take that as a sign and seriously consider a referendum.
If the petition numbers are not compelling, listen to O’Donnell and get us a school.